Fentanyl has caused many overdose deaths in recent years, and much of it has entered the United States through Mexico. A number of politicians have thrown their support behind a proposal to officially label narcotics traffickers based in Mexico as “terrorists.” Not all of the Republican lawmakers who support this idea have openly embraced the use of lethal drones to eliminate such persons, but that would be the inevitable policy implication of such labeling, given the wording of anti-terrorist legislation. At least one presidential candidate, Vivek Ramaswamy, has said the quiet part out loud: lethal drones should be deployed at the U.S.-Mexico border. There can be little doubt that the many other politicians declaring “war” on the cartels are well aware that lethal force will be used once the fentanyl producers have been designated terrorists, and the current tool of choice among self-styled smart warriors is the unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) or lethal drone.
The superficially plausible assumption behind this proposal is that if the flow of fentanyl is stanched, then the overdose deaths will subside. But the prospect of deploying lethal drones at the U.S.-Mexico border is a simplistic plan for addressing a very complicated problem. There are dozens of reasons for opposing this approach, on moral, legal, cultural, and geopolitical grounds. Most of those arguments, however, will fall on deaf ears and certainly not deter politicians from plundering ahead, expanding the domain of the killing machine once again, having been, in at least some cases, sincerely persuaded that they are acting not to enrich death industry profiteers but to defend the people of the United States from foreign enemies. The only way to prevent the deployment of lethal drones at the border from happening will be persuasively to demonstrate that the plan could never succeed, on purely tactical grounds. Two fatal flaws virtually guarantee that, if implemented, the plan would not have the desired effect, as can be seen through a consideration of the origins of the opioid crisis and the cross-border use of lethal drones in the Middle East.
The tragic drug overdoses of hundreds of thousands of people in the United States in recent years have had many causal factors, but the prime mover, what initiated the whole ugly mess, was the promiscuous overprescription of narcotics by doctors. Led by Purdue Pharma, drug industry giants aggressively marketed their opioid products as safe to use by anyone for anything, all blessed by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration), which permitted a package insert to be included in boxes of Oxycontin indicating that the time-release format made the product safe to use without concerns about addiction or abuse. This was a classic case of the commandeering by profiteers of a government agency established in order to protect citizens but used instead to promote the interests of those who come to enrich themselves through decisively shaping government policies. (An even more obvious case has been the capture of the Department of Defense by individuals beholden to companies in military industry, such as former Raytheon board member and current secretary of defense, Lloyd Austin.) Because most members of the populace believe that the FDA is their protector (again, just as they believe in the basic goodness of the Pentagon), many of them were taken in by this pharmaceutical industry scheme.
Doctors, too, were remarkably persuaded to believe that they could and should prescribe narcotics liberally, and patients consequently came to believe that they could and should empty their large amber vials. Preposterous though it may seem in retrospect, the pharmaceutical industry undertook aggressive public media campaigns to persuade politicians and their constituents that the nation was in the throes of a “pain epidemic,” for which narcotics were the solution. When clinicians expressed concern that their patients might be turning into addicts, they were tutored by “experts” tethered to the industry that the observed condition was in fact “pseudo-addiction,” the remedy for which would be even higher doses of narcotic drugs.
Prescription narcotics were oversupplied to perfectly ordinary patients suffering from even minor bouts of acute pain, who eventually discovered that they had become dependent on and were unable to function without the drugs. The opiates to which they found themselves hopelessly addicted were prescribed legally to them by physicians whom they had trusted as having their best interests in mind. In this way, people from all walks of life, including injured high school athletes who had never even been recreational drug users, were transformed into junkies.
Some of the working people who were prescribed narcotics for their various, often minor, ailments lost their jobs and, with them, their health insurance. During the early years of what would become the opioid overdose epidemic, addicts and others supported themselves by selling pills they acquired through “doctor shopping”. As a direct consequence of the pharmaceutical industry-created demand for more and more narcotics, mercenary but board-certified doctors teamed up with unscrupulous business persons to open “pain clinics,” which swiftly became places where addicts convened and collected drugs to be diverted for illegal sales. Massive quantities of narcotics were distributed by the now notorious pain clinics. Many of those drugs were sold on the streets for recreational use, thereby creating even more addicts. (For a concise and compelling summary of the government’s indisputable role in this tragic story, see director Alex Gibney’s two-part HBO series, The Crime of the Century .)
Once the pain clinics were shut down, more and more addicts turned to the streets for supplies of their needed fix of whatever was available: diverted prescription pills, heroin, morphine, and most notoriously of all, fentanyl. Because it is so potent (about fifty times more than comparable drugs) and also cheap to produce, fentanyl was mixed or even used to replace other narcotics by unscrupulous dealers. The increased demand by addicts for opioids and the use by dealers of fentanyl to cut or replace heroin and other less dangerous surrogates has resulted in the deaths of many drug users who simply did not know what they were ingesting. At least some of the fentanyl deaths reported have been of non-addicts whose supplies of other drugs, too, were tainted with the highly concentrated and toxic substance.
Can eliminating supplies of fentanyl coming over the border to the United States from Mexico solve this problem? Will summarily executing suspected producers and distributors of fentanyl help to stem the tide of overdose deaths? Even setting aside concerns about procedural justice, the proposal to assassinate suspected drug dealers fails to take into account the etiology of the opioid crisis and, most importantly of all, the nature of drug dependency and the desperation of junkies to acquire the substances to which they are not only psychologically but physically addicted.
The opioid addiction crisis was not caused but seized upon opportunistically by Mexican drug cartels. The very fact that the fentanyl business has become so lucrative for illicit drug purveyors itself illustrates that there is a strong market demand for narcotics, whether natural or synthetic. If addicts cannot acquire cheap black tar heroin and/or fentanyl from Mexican producers and their network of distributors throughout the United States, then they will seek out and locate other sources of the drugs which their bodies crave. No one denies that the opioid addiction crisis is grave. But whacking drug dealers at the U.S.-Mexico border will simply produce more drug dealers, in different places.
We’ve seen a version of this story before, mutatis mutandis. What, after all, happened when war resisters transformed into jihadists on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan were targeted by missiles? First, there was the hydra problem: targeting suspected militants often resulted in the deaths of innocent civilians, thus fueling the very anger requisite to the recruitment by Al Qaeda and other groups of new converts to violent retaliation. Other factors, beyond the illegal invasions themselves, contributed to the increased number of radical Islamist fighters as well, including the use of torture by the occupiers, along with a variety of other incompetent policies, which led to a general degradation in the quality of life for the inhabitants of occupied territories.
Second, and directly relevant to the proposed plan to execute suspects at the U.S.-Mexico border, as the ranks of the factional fighters increased, some of them fled to other parts of the Middle East to regroup and avoid being killed by occupying forces. The comportment of the dissidents who fled war zones was entirely rational. They believed that they were right, and they naturally wanted to succeed in their missions to eject the invaders from their lands, so they relocated and strategized about how to defeat what they had come to believe was “the evil enemy.” The lethal drones then followed the factional fighters to Pakistan, Syria, Somalia, Mali, Yemen, and beyond. As a result of this lethal creep, civilians in several different countries are now under constant threat of death by missiles launched by drones.
The Mexican drug cartels are not at this point engaged in a war with the U.S. military, but recalling how and why the “Global War on Terror” spread throughout the Middle East, we must soberly consider what is likely to ensue, should lethal drones be unleashed at the border as a way of curtailing the flow of fentanyl. It is quite plausible, given what happened in the Global War on Terror, that the more missiles which are fired on the U.S.-Mexico border, the fewer people there will be who choose to continue to live there. This should be a matter of common sense even to people ignorant of the details of the disastrous Global War on Terror, and yet the politicians pushing for a new “War on Drugs” somehow have not thought through the likely consequences of their plan, preferring instead to follow their usual “act tough” approach to garner political support for superficially appealing policies. No matter that Plan Colombia, intended to reduce the flow of cocaine to the United States, had the opposite effect and led to the militarization of drug traffickers throughout region, not the renunciation of their business activities. Just as the Global War on Terror has been all but forgotten by politicians keen to “move on” rather than acknowledge their role in creating humanitarian catastrophe throughout the Middle East, Plan Colombia has been memory-holed for the very same reason. Both were abject policy failures. Mistakes were made. Stuff happens. Nothing to see here; time to move on—to Ukraine!
Following the same logic used by both the radical jihadists in Afghanistan, and the cocaine cartels in Colombia, targeted groups at the U.S.-Mexico border who wish to continue to ply their trade, producing and distributing fentanyl and other drugs to the people of the United States, may well set up shop somewhere else, in places where they will be safe from the specter of lethal drones hovering above their heads. If fentanyl is easy to produce in Mexico, it is no less easy to produce wherever the same raw materials can be found. We can expect, then, that if lethal drones are used at the border, fentanyl production and distribution will migrate as a result. Some of the producers will move south, some may relocate to Canada, but it seems far more likely that many of them will opt to use the distribution apparatus they already have in place in the United States to begin or increase synthetic drug production in the very country where fentanyl is being sold.
The illicit drug purveyors may well reason that they will be safer moving their businesses to the United States, rather than further south in Mexico or other parts of Latin America, or up north to Canada. They may find it difficult to believe that the U.S. government would deploy lethal drones in the homeland, thereby directly endangering U.S. citizens. That assumption, however, is false. We already have precedents for such deployments abroad, and even the use of robotic means of homicide within the homeland against U.S. citizens.
The case of Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen who was summarily executed by the U.S. government in Yemen without ever having been indicted for a crime, on the basis of evidence never made public to his fellow citizens that he was a “terrorist,” illustrates that the drone killers are ready and willing to inflict capital punishment upon citizens at the executive’s decree. Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, the sixteen-year-old son of Anwar al-Awlaki, was also destroyed, along with a group of his teenage friends, by a missile launched from a drone in Yemen, about two weeks after his father was eliminated, and shortly after the boy had turned sixteen, making him a “military-age male”. To this day, we do not know whether the son was killed because military analysts worried that he would be radicalized by his father’s assassination, for the U.S. government has never explained what happened on October 14, 2011.
It is possible, albeit implausible (given the government’s silence on the matter), that the drone strike which ended Abdulrahman’s life was a mistake, an incredible coincidence that the younger al-Awlaki happened to find himself at the receiving end of a missile intended for somebody else. But the case of U.S. citizen Warren Weinstein, who had been taken prisoner (along with an Italian, Giovanni Lo Porto) by a group of suspected Al Qaeda members, and was also destroyed by a lethal drone, illustrates that, in pursuing their targets, the technokillers are ready and willing to risk harming U.S. citizens not even suspected of criminal activity.
Lest anyone suppose that the U.S. government would draw the line with citizen suspects located abroad, it is important to recognize that the presumption against the use of intentional homicide against citizens has been significantly weakened in the homeland as well, arguably as a result of the U.S. military’s “shoot first, suppress questions later” conduct abroad everywhere on display throughout the Global War on Terror. That homicide should be used to resolve conflict has been normalized in the minds of not only military and political elites but also every random mass shooter who emerges out of nowhere to annihilate a group of people as a way of expressing his discontent. When Micah Xavier Johnson, the Dallas cop killer, was blown up on July 8, 2016, using a robotic device at the behest of David O’Neal Brown, the chief of the Dallas police, nearly no one questioned the wisdom of the decision, though it would have been a simple matter to load the robot with incapacitating sedatives instead. Both of these African American men had been indoctrinated to believe that the way to resolve conflict is to obliterate human beings. Johnson, a military veteran apparently suffering from PTSD, claimed that he felt the need to kill Dallas cops as a way of protesting their killing of innocent black men.
Given these precedents, it seems likely that once lethal drones are deployed in the latest doomed-to-fail War on Drugs, the “War on Fentanyl,” they will be used not only in Mexico, but also in the United States as fentanyl production migrates to the homeland along with those fleeing the missiles being fired near the border. In the face of the overdose epidemic, politicians, goaded by both angry and mourning constituents, feel the need to act, and they will likely be supported by many in the populace in their quest to send out lethal drones—until, that is, innocent family members and neighbors begin to be incinerated in the homeland. At that point, perhaps the nation will finally have its long overdue debate about the policy of summarily executing suspects and the labeling as “collateral damage” of any innocent person unlucky enough to be located within the radius of a missile’s effects. But revisiting the immorality and illegality of killing thousands of unarmed brown-skinned young men in the prime of their lives abroad, on the basis of sketchy evidence which would never hold up in a court of law, while perhaps salubrious for future foreign policy, will have no effect whatsoever on the overdose epidemic.
The only truly effective solution to the opioid crisis, given the manifest failure of both the War on Drugs and the Prohibition, will be to legalize all drugs, making it possible for addicts and recreational drug users alike to buy what they need or want, and to know what they are actually getting. Anyone who wishes to liberate himself from the chains of addiction and return to a semblance of normal life should be assisted in that endeavor. Every addict has a story, and rather than criminalizing all of them, we would do well to take seriously the genesis of the opioid crisis in the United States. Many well-meaning patients, leading perfectly ordinary, noncriminal lives, ended up as junkies because they trusted their doctors who, in turn, trusted the pharma-coopted FDA. To those who worry that legalizing drugs will create even more junkies, there is a ready-made, highly visible anti-narcotics abuse campaign currently underway in every major city in the United States. No rational person would freely choose to wind up in the sorry state of the zombies currently haunting our streets. Rather than pinning up posters of fried eggs captioned “Your brain on drugs,” parents need only to take their children to such scenes to dissuade them from making the mistakes which led to the creation of what appear now to be mere vestiges of human beings.
Unfortunately, instead of viewing the opioid crisis as the humanitarian disaster that it is, some of the very politicians who culpably condoned industry malfeasance for years by refusing to acknowledge its root cause—pharmaceutical industry greed and our captured federal agencies—have decided that the suppliers of fentanyl from Mexico are the latest “bad guys” who must be eradicated from the face of the earth. Stigmatizing drug purveyors as “terrorists” not only will not effectively address the overdose epidemic, but it will further undermine our already crumbling republic. If the use of lethal force against suspected drug dealers is undertaken at the border, it will only be a matter of time before the presumption of innocence in the homeland is inverted into a presumption of guilt, just as occurred in the thousands of drone strikes targeting suspects on the basis of hearsay and circumstantial evidence throughout the Global War on Terror abroad.